The Second-Movie Itch

When filmmaker Mario Van Peebles spoke at Texas Southern University last fall, he emphasized the problem of black filmmakers' "second movie" -- that is, the one they make outside the hood. He spoke in the wake of John Singleton's Poetic Justice, which opened to high expectations and big first-weekend money, then withered at the box office. Van Peebles told his African American audience that if they wanted to see on-screen black people outside of the kill-or-be-killed mode, they should support more gentle and well-rounded films with the same enthusiasm they had shown for, say, his New Jack City.

But should is a deadly word where moviegoers of any race are concerned. One of the most vital American films of the '80s, The Right Stuff, flopped financially because viewers feared they were being invited to a history lesson. Malcolm X underperformed in part for the same reason.

Should is an equally deadly word for a filmmaker. It may have taken John Singleton out of the ghetto, but it also took him into a terrain he apparently wasn't ready to explore.

Now two more black filmmakers, Matty Rich and Ernest Dickerson, are facing the should beast. Both have recently released their second films, and in both movies the directors have ventured well outside the safe (cinematically safe, at least) confines of their respective Fort Apaches. Beyond that, though, Rich and Dickerson are more different than alike. Though they both debuted with despairing looks at ghetto violence, in their second outings the two travel quite different paths.

The most dramatic shift of focus comes with Matty Rich's film. Rich is, or was, a child prodigy. Essentially a self-taught filmmaker, he wrote and directed his personal coming-of-age story, Straight Out of Brooklyn, at age 19. Not surprisingly, the film has so many rough edges that it might have poked critics' eyes out had it not caught the black filmmaker wave. But in its depiction of a troubled father-son relationship, Straight Out of Brooklyn does show heart, even if it lacks technique. And that Rich produced any kind of coherent film under his circumstances was remarkable. That could be the reason Touchstone took a chance on him; with The Inkwell they gave him a coming-of-age story set in 1976 in a bourgeois black beach community on Mar-tha's Vineyard. Simply learning that such a community existed, and exists, is just about worth the price of admission.

Unlike Rich, Ernest Dickerson has been shooting movies for years -- as Spike Lee's longtime cameraman. But his first time in the director's chair was with 1992's Juice, a trapped-in-the-ghetto story that didn't add much to the genre. In his sophomore film, Surviving the Game, he's again on the mean streets, at least at the start, but he lets us know right away that his game has changed. He presents the dreadlocked Ice-T not as a hood but as a righteous black man, homeless, maybe, but filled with compassion. Ice-T's character, a man of the '90s named Mason, is plenty aware of racism, but he's not embittered. A wheezing old white man is his best friend. But before long, Mason's fragile street life falls apart, and two benefactors scoop him up and carry him into the woods of the Pacific Northwest, which is even farther from the ghetto than Martha's Vineyard is.

Unfortunately, long before Mason sets foot in the wilderness, we realize that Dickerson's film is merely another remake of The Most Dangerous Game, and a particularly silly one at that. Sur-viving the Game should be punctuated with a question mark.

Boiled down to its high concept, Rich's Inkwell is no more original than Dickerson's Surviving the Game. In fact, if its characters were white, the movie would qualify as an after-school special (if you cut the Straight Out of the Summer of '42 sexual initiation story, that is). But Rich manages to balance his broad race questions with an actual story. He's still not the smoothest director around -- his narrative loses its way at times, and he doesn't make his actors work hard enough -- but he does show that he can get his mind around a number of issues.

Inkwell's central character is Drew (Larenz Tate), a teenager who isn't growing up as fast as his ex-Black Panther father (Joe Morton) would like. The story implies that his parents' rocky relationship makes young Drew want to hang on to his inner child. Kenny, the father, has never gotten over the fact that not only was the revolution never televised, it never happened. Kenny agrees to take Drew to visit his maternal, and very Republican, grandparents on Martha's Vineyard, but he's not happy about it. Once there, Kenny and his wealthy brother-in-law, Spencer (Glynn Turman), resume a long-standing battle about the black man's place in America. You know there'll be trouble when you see a portrait of Richard Nixon hanging in Spencer's living room.

Kenny sneers at the comfortable black sunbathers as "sell-outs"; Spencer defends them by saying they've made the American Dream real for blacks. Turman makes his character work by punctuating the statement with a cynical laugh, which both undermines his little speech and mocks Kenny for taking life so seriously.

It's inevitable in an "uplifting" story such as this that these polar opposites will be reconciled by the film's end, and Rich's plot doesn't do anything to surprise us. But the director and his actors (and writers Tom Ricostronza and Paris Qualles) flesh their characters out so that they feel real. Joe Morton is particularly fine as Kenny. With his political disappointment, Kenny could have been a one-note character, but Morton makes him a complex figure, a middle-aged man still forced to search for a viable black identity. Because he's so frustrated, it's understandable that his still-unshaped son would agitate him.

Son Drew's identity is certainly in flux. Coiffed at first in an Afro that's guaranteed to draw a laugh, Larenz Tate looks unsettlingly like a teenage Michael Jackson. (Apparently unable to endure a 'fro for a full feature, Rich gives his young character an anachronistic set of dreadlocks halfway into the action.)

Rich and Tate keep Drew's character light; he's no Holden Caulfield. Tate plays Drew with a nearly constant grin, but he has so much magnetism that he remains likable, even if he's overplayed.

The women's roles aren't particularly interesting (at least they're not offensive), but the men are complicated enough to give an idea of the difficult world in which Drew is growing up. It's this context,

nd Rich's relaxed presentation of the black middle class, that lifts The Inkwell beyond genre.

Ernest Dickerson isn't so lucky. Surviving the Game breaks out of the action genre all right, but in a downward direction. The movie is so ridiculous that it becomes a goofy pleasure. Could Ice-T's Mason really think that his benefactors are interviewing the homeless in search of, as they claim, a hunting guide?

Ice-T and Dickerson do acknowledge their adventure's absurdity with an occasional joke, and in general Ice-T keeps his performance light. He'd have to, with those dreadlocks surrounded by that forest. (At least the dreadlocks are in the right time period, if the wrong location.)

Once Mason learns that he's not the guide but the prey, the film becomes a straightforward allegory. Mason may be a highly evolved black man who's just trying to keep skin and dignity intact, but now he's literally hunted by a representative band of enemies: a sadistic Nordic conqueror (Rutger Hauer), an assimilated black man (Charles S. Dutton), a racist Texan (John C. McGinley), a Wall Street Jew (F. Murray Abraham) and, greatest irony, the Wall Streeter's son, a white suburban kid (William McNamara) who doubtless wears his ballcap backward in the mall.

This sounds more obnoxious than it plays. There's no overt reference to Abraham's Jewishness, and the movie is too silly to draw blood. When the boy starts whining to his father about having to hunt and kill a human being, he might as well be arguing that he needs a bigger allowance.

Surviving the Game winds up being a black exploitation film played on a slightly higher level than its 1970s predecessors. Ice-T's Mason triumphs largely by hanging on to his humanity with one hand and his street smarts with the other, and allowing his enemies to kill themselves.

So, in the second-movie crunch time for Ernest Dickerson and Matty Rich, it says here that Rich has a long "A" career ahead of him, while Dickerson may be stuck on the "B" squad.

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